New Zealand Visits Storytelling Schools GB

Pene Balk–Jarvis is a literacy resource teacher from New Zealand and is part of the team setting up Storytelling Schools there. This summer Pene attended our summer school in Emerson College, and visited three ‘outstanding’ storytelling schools: School21 and Mayflower in London and High Meadow Infants in Coventry. Storytelling Schools (STS) interviewed Pene about her trip.

STS: Tell us about your work in New Zealand.

Pene: Three years ago a group of Literacy Resource teachers in Christchurch started using the Storytelling Schools Method after one of our resource teachers, Lis Swanson, had discovered the method online and purchased a teachers handbook. Following success with individual classes a number of schools have now signed up to become Storytelling Schools using a whole school approach. I am one of the team providing mentoring and training for these schools.

It was clear from the start that the method worked well because (a) the children enjoyed it, (b) it was easy to see the results in the children’s oracy and written literacy, and (c) the teachers felt empowered as the method gave them a framework with which to plan their teaching. Teachers saw the immediate impact on children and wanted more.

In particular it has been satisfying to see children excel at storytelling, allowing them to express themselves orally even though they struggle with written communication. There are so many examples of ‘low achieving’ children making up and telling really wonderful stories. The method is fun and yet gives purpose and meaning to learning.

STS: How was the summer school?

Pene. The five-day summer school provided a wonderful opportunity to train with others while immersing fully in the Storytelling Method. It was a great chance to gain confidence by seeing all the methods in the handbook being demonstrated and then experiencing it first hand. It really showed how exciting and enjoyable the approach is. Also it was really interesting to get to know educators from other countries and share experiences and ideas together.

STS. How was your visit to School 21?

Pene: It was inspiring to see the Storytelling Schools Method being used with such skill and passion. Even though it was only the second week of term it was clear that children were engaging fully with the method. They understood it and knew how to put into practice. I was inspired to watch staff reviewing and adapting the methods to best meet the needs of their classes. I loved watching Kate make up bespoke drama exercises to support a particular writing task. Teachers said they felt empowered by the method and liked the way it helped accelerate new vocabulary learning,


STS. How about your visit to Mayflower School

 Pene: Mayflower was so impressive and especially so given that the children come from such disadvantaged backgrounds and almost 100% with English as an additional language. The school was so welcoming and caring and felt like one big warm family. In Mayflower they have been using the Method for many years and you can feel how deeply embedded it is in the teaching culture.

I was impressed by how children were getting on with applying the method themselves, sometimes with minimal input from staff. Also, it was good to watch the way the staff planned for their units, adapting the method to their teaching goals and coming up with all sorts of ways to support the learning through rich experiences.

Again, teachers emphasised that the method was an effective and efficient way to building up new vocabulary before learning to use it. They know of no better way.

STS: What about High Meadow Infants

 Pene: High Meadow is a superb infants school in Coventry. Again I was struck by three key ingredients: first the head teacher was passionate and 100% committed to the method. Second the teaching staff were clear about why and how they use the method across the school. They have seen the benefits and know that it works. Finally, the children were secure in the learning routines and knew what and how they were learning. The quality of writing was just amazing.

All three schools had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve and how. This was clear in the planning and in the teaching which was purposeful and systematic. In all three settings parents were actively involved, encouraging storytelling at home and sometimes bringing back new stories from their own cultures and backgrounds. Storytelling provided a way of valuing multiple cultures and languages, linking families into the learning community.

STS: what will you do with this learning back in NZ?

Pene: As this trip is sponsored by the Ministry of Education, I will write them a report on what I have seen and learned and the implications for STS in New Zealand. The report will then be shared with colleagues and schools in the area where I work as a way of encouraging new schools to consider using the method.

I have seen how the method can be used to build a school-wide culture of learning where both teachers and children can understand both how they are learning and also how it fits into the overall learning scheme. This sense of an overall systematic approach is empowering for both teachers and children while enabling those inclusive features to blossom: engaging, fun, playful, creative, ideas-led and leading to impressive progress in both oracy and writing. It is so important for teachers to feel part of a bigger system of learning and Storytelling Schools does this in spades.

Also, I now understand better how crucial the teaching of shared writing is. At first I found it a little overwhelming but now I have seen how it can be a simple and fast way of showing how to write so all the students feel able to have a go.

Finally, I have learned about leadership. In all three settings the leaders were clear, passionate and committed to the STS method. You could see how the teachers fed off that passion and passed it down to the children.

I so wish I had known about this method 20 years ago. Now, after a lifetime of teaching, I have found a method which really works for all children and delivers such amazing results. Even though I am not a confident writer, the Method allows me to be a confident teacher of writing. It also delivers such amazing results. There’s no arguing with that!


Outstanding Storytelling School

Storytelling School Achieves Outstanding

Congratulations to the staff at Mayflower Primary School in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, for achieving outstanding status in their recent OFSTED inspection.

STS interviewed Dee Bleach, Headteacher about the school’s achievement.

“Our contact with the Storytelling Schools approach began in 2009 when Michael Rosen and Chris Smith made a presentation at a nearby school. Two pupils from Pegasus School in Oxford came down and told us a story: they delivered it with such fluency, enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment, that I immediately felt this would be right for our pupils.

At that time our attainment levels in English were well below national average: we needed something to engage and inspire our pupils to get more enthusiastic about writing. Helping them find their voice, like the Pegasus storytellers, seemed like a great place to start. I liked the sound of the approach: it built on talk for writing and I liked the creatively and fluency of this approach which I thought would appeal more to our staff and pupils.

Chris Smith from Storytelling Schools, then provided a series of twilight trainings to our staff over the next two years, drip feeding the 7 elements of the method (telling, deepening, shared writing, innovation, invention and non-fiction.)

It was good to go step by step, with Chris coming in and checking in on progress so that we could receive bespoke trainings adapted to our needs. Also, later, a second trainer, Nanette Stormont was important as a mentor and planner for our teachers, especially for upper KS2 where she showed them how to use storytelling to teach excellent writing for this age group.

We integrated storytelling into our curriculum so that stories were always told at the beginning of each half term as the learning springboard.

Levels of writing began to improve immediately and continued to climb over the next few years, as the storytelling method became core to how we taught. Our teaching teams liked it, not just because they saw the results in the quantity and quality of writing, but also because they felt themselves developing as confident and inspiring storytellers.

The Storytelling Schools method proved a useful system for developing as a teacher. Staff got used to the standard teaching sequence (tell, deepen, write, innovate, invent) and became better and better at adapting it to their pupil’s needs. It is an inclusive approach that supports all learners. Also, with time, the children themselves understand how the process of storytelling supports their learning, enabling progress in peer and self assessment and the development of a visible learning culture.

Today the pupils who started storytelling in reception back in 2009 are now in year 6. Over their time in the school they have learned to tell at least 40 stories by heart: for them it is just a normal and natural way of learning.

Storytelling has also helped our engagement with parents: the children take their story maps home for retelling and practicing and we found that many parents were both delighted and amazed by the skills of their children.

The benefits have spread beyond our individual school. Through a project funded by SHINE, 9 schools in the Poplar Partnership have adopted the method, and we now host and run training for other schools. Many teachers have visited and seen the method in practice before adopting storytelling themselves.

For me, achieving outstanding status has been about supporting teachers and their creativity: the storytelling method has been a great way to support and develop creative teaching, building a confident and empowered team of educators, on a solid base of learning theory and practice. ”


Here are some quotes from the report:

“Pupils’ learning is outstanding …  All adults have high expectations and use their expertise to get the most from pupils. Teachers apply their subject knowledge well to plan interesting, exciting and challenging work. They bring learning to life by choosing topics that motivate pupils and by linking these topics to the range of subjects taught over the year. Pupils’ excitement is often palpable.

“Teachers .. have a clear understanding of where pupils are with their learning and use this to set challenging work that stretches their thinking. Teachers identify gaps in pupils’ learning and quickly ensure that these are filled.

“Teachers plan and prepare their lessons thoroughly and with care. They know their pupils well and set work that motivates them and supports those who may be struggling.

“Teachers work in partnership with other teachers and support staff most effectively to plan lessons, and discuss and share ideas. This creates a very positive climate for learning right across the school. Teachers have a clear focus on pupils’ progress and speak eloquently of the way the school uses research to develop and refine its approaches to teaching and learning. Teachers are thoughtful and reflective, constantly developing and improving their practice. This ensures that pupils get high-quality teaching that is tailored closely to their needs and abilities. 



Year 1 Storytelling as a Springboard for Writing


This story is told by teacher Lyndsey Edwards with year 1 students from High Meadow Infants. After this the children learn to tell the story fluently using Hear-Map-Step-Speak and then link the story to writing.

Check out the techniques to achieve sustained concentration using questions and answers plus a few gestures,  keeping the children engaged over the whole period. The original story is available in our book 147 Traditional Stories for children to retell.




Writing for Purpose

I so enjoyed visiting the outstanding School 21 in Tower Hamlets where Storytelling Schools trainer Kate Barron works, leading adoption of the Storytelling Schools method from reception to year 4. Visiting the classes I was impressed by the level of understanding of the children who could eloquently explain to me the process of writing, how they learned from stories and texts and then applied that to their own inventions. They were extremely clear about the effect they wanted to have with their writing.

The year 4 focus was a Victorians project on ‘the workhouse’, and I was shown all the steps leading towards independent fiction writing: telling and analysing the original story, inventing new stories and then practicing various writing techniques for the invented stories before the final write.

I really liked this flashback piece from Mariam who was clear about trying to create a vivid and painful memory in her story. The prose is powerful  and engaging without overloading  unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. See what you think!

Sailing the Seven Cs

I’ve just been leafing through Ken Robinson’s book ‘Creative Schools’ and his take on what’s worth learning in the 21st Century.

He comes up with 7 Competencies:

Curiosity: questioning and exploring how the world works
Creativity: generating and applying new ideas
Criticism: analysing information and make reasoned arguments and judgements
Communication: expressing thoughts and feelings clearly
Collaboration: working well with others
Compassion: learning empathy and how to act on it
Composure: connecting with ones inner life and finding balance
Citizenship: engaging constructively with society.

This got me thinking about the fit with the Storytelling Schools approach:

Curiosity: inquisitiveness about what goes on in the story and why.
Creativity: making up new ways of retelling and performing the learned story, then making up and performing new ones.
Criticism: developing a critical vocabulary of stories in order to assess and suggest improvements.
Communication: developing capacity to express thoughts feelings and ideas through stories.
Collaboration: working togther to review, create and perform stories.
Composure: learning to connect with ones own inner life in responses to stories.
Citizenship: championing everyone’s right to be heard, to tell their story and express their own views.

So, for people who like checklists, there’s another one to add to your list!

Storytelling Curriculum

A storytelling curriculum plans out the repertoire of stories that a child learns, year by year in a school, as a way of developing communication fluency while learning all about the content of the stories.

I saw this on Ed Finches twitter (@MrEFinch), talking about his experience with the curriculum at Larkrise school. Worth reading if you are considering using a storytelling curriculum.

“A Storytelling Curriculum
Posted on February 5, 2017 by Mr Finch
It has been story telling week these past few days and a lot of teachers have been extolling the pleasures and benefits of telling stories in the classroom. At Larkrise Primary School in Oxford, the school where I work, every week is story telling week – we run the school on a ‘storytelling curriculum’ which roots learning in spoken language and gives disparate subject areas a consistent context.

Larkrise is a large Primary School in East Oxford. We have 450 children on site and a serve truly diverse community. The school has around twenty home languages and the fullest socio-economic range possible – the surrounding estates are home to university lecturers, asylum seekers, doctors and consultants, civil servants, long term unemployed – the lot. This gives us a vast range of cultures and values systems to bring together at the school. The Storytelling Curriculum gives us some effective tools for celebrating diversity and examining links between faiths and values systems.

Our Storytelling Curriculum came about at Larkrise ten years ago, largely as a rejection of those QCA folders with their weird stand-alone guides for teachers which were supposed to be examples but felt statutory. Larkrise spotted story telling as a way to do something different, to be something different, and in pursuing it we changed ourselves. Morale at the school, amongst staff and pupils rose markedly as we followed our new curriculum. SATS results started to rise, from a very low base, and have continued to improve over the time we have followed the Storytelling Curriculum.

Each half term learning is based on a story. Teachers choose their stories from a wide range of sources but one very rich source is Chris Smith’s 147 Traditional Stories for Primary School Children to Retell – I believe every school should have a copy of this book – it’s a goldmine of great tales all written in the storytellers voice and indexed by theme, story type, values, geographical region and so on. It’s invaluable. As a two form entry school we encourage the two classes in a Year |Group to choose the same story and plan together.

We ask teachers to spend some time choosing a story that will work for what they want to achieve in the half term. Will it lend itself to the kind of writing the children will be working towards in literacy? Does it focus on a social need in the class? Will it link appropriately to the other subject areas which will be the focus of the term? Is there an area of the world which is of particular significance to a pupil that thy’re trying to get on board? If I’ve learned one thing over the last ten years that we’ve been doing this it’s that choosing your story makes or breaks your half term’s learning so choose carefully.

In the earliest years stories are often chosen for their appropriacy for choral retelling – something like ‘The Little Red Hen’ or ‘Owl Babies’ works well in F1. As children progress we’re looking for their stories, and their tellings of those stories to become richer and we find lots of tales are great for this – the Greek Myths are popular as are African stories. We have also had success with retellings of ‘true’ stories from history – the D-Day landings, the Great Fire of London and so on work well as stories.

A story sequence in class starts with the teacher orally telling the story to the class. And I do mean ‘telling’, ours is a storytelling curriculum not a story reading curriculum – it’s the immediacy and power of the storyteller we are harnessing not, in the initial stages, the expertise of an author. Some teachers liek to make a bit of a show of the telling, maybe using props or musical instruments, some like to take the children across the cycle path to the natures reserve to make it more special, some keep it simple – all of these are fine. After a few story sequences most teachers cotton on that the power of a good story, well told doesn’t need much assistance from props or theatricals – it’s really about eye contact, expression and the bond between speaker and listener.

The teacher should ideally retell the story several times so that its structure becomes clear to the children. A good story teller, and a good teacher, can retell the same story repeatedly with lots of differences but with ‘the really important bits’ staying the same each time.

Over the first two weeks of the sequence the children will be ‘deepening’ their experience of the story in myriad ways. Creating art based on it, doing drama activities to get to the heart of it, finding out about the cultural context the story comes from and much more. This ‘deepening’ can be at least partially led by the pupils as they start to find out what they are interested in about the story. It is also led by the teacher who has a plan for where they need the story to take them. There is a lot of skill and negotiation going on here – let us say a teacher chose to tell a story based on Hawaii because she wanted to focus on Non-chronological report writing and thought the children would be gripped by the sealife in the story. Instead she finds the children home in on the volcanoes – she needs now to decide if she’s going to follow the children and go to volcanoes (she can still get them to write those non-chronological reports) or stick with the sealife – after all maybe she’s already scheduled a trip to the tropical fish shop round the corner. It’s all up for negotiation so we know we can’t ask teachers for detailed topic plans ahead of time, we just have to trust them.

As the children are deepening their experience of the story they are also ‘finding its bones’, developing a deeper understanding of its structure – how it works as a story. After a few days this is probably secure enough for them to create some sort of a story map. This can/could/should be little more than a few thumbnail drawings or keywords on a scrap of paper. In our early years we’d let children spend ages making beautiful, ornate maps, fully coloured in and with speech bubles and everything. We realised this was a total error when we spotted children were spending more time on creating their story maps than they ever were retelling the story.

When the children have found the bones of the story and created a map they move on to stepping the story. This is really a physical version of the story map with each little drawing or keyword becoming a gesture that encapsulates a section of story. I tend to have about six or seven ‘moments’ in a story stepping sequence, some people want to have lots more. There is absolutely no right or wrong here. The children have to find the steps for themselves as we are looking for them to develop their own individual tellings of the story – not for them to mimic the teachers telling.

At this point the children are primed and ready to go. They will be able to tell the story all the way through and, stories being stories, will find they need to draw on a range of tenses, tropes, vocabulary and sentence types to do so. Just think about ‘The Little Red Hen’, it’s often the first story children are asked to retell but it includes lots of very specific vocabulary ‘sow’, ‘harvest’, ‘grind’ and so on. The retelling will practice correct sentence forms of reported speech ‘Who will help me sow the corn?’ asked the Little Red Hen. The retelling will demand use of time connectives and at the very least coordination of three tenses – past continuous and past simple and future simple interrogative – and use of reporting verbs to clarify which of the charaters is speaking. By clearly modelling structures within their telling of a story and coaching children to use those structures in their retellings the teacher can develop the childrens ear for correct English Grammar and give them opportunities to use particular identified forms in their own speech. Down the line when it’s time to introduce the metalanguage of grammar and define its usage at least have heard used the structures they are looking at.

Teachers need to find good ways to motivate pupils to retell the story. Meeting up with another class to share the class story child to child works well, in the younger years ‘stay and play’s are a great opportunity, sometimes we record or video the children telling their story. This certainly remains a tricky element for teachers – I personally would find it hard to think ill of a child who is reluctant to practice telling a story that he or she believes there will never be an audience for.

The part of the sequence including hearing the story, deepening the experience of the story, finding the bones of the story, mapping and stepping the story, and ultimately telling the story. Probably takes around a fortnight – that can depend on all sorts of variables of course – but now the children and their teacher are itching to get on. There’s writing to start with. We would like to see the story written in their books, we’ve invested lots of time hearing and speaking the story so lets see what it looks like written down. If we’re moving on to another kind of writing we will still use our skills of mapping, stepping and orally rehearsing our text before we put it to paper. And all the other subjects are demanding our time now, the context of the story – presuming it was well chosen – will now give an effortless context for the other learning. If I want to ‘do’ earth and space for a science topic I’ll make sure that my story links to earth and space and I won’t need to spend any time ‘hooking’ the children’s interest – it will already be there. Quite apart from moving on to other areas of writing and other subjects, there’s still plenty to be done with our story. Children will be starting to innovate the story – making little changes to it and then going on to make bolder changes and create new stories that borrow the structure of the terms story. There’s another blog in here altogether but underpinning my belief in the storytelling curriculum is our understanding of story itself as the way that humans make sense of the world. By working and reworking their class stories, and by developing a bank of stories which are fully internalised, we believe our children will be better able to cope with change and with the vicissitudes of life. Given the success of our pupils as they move on to secondary school and beyond I think we’re not far wrong.

Of course some subjects are harder to work in to the story curriculum, maths by and large stands entirely seperate from the story sequence. Our chosen MFL, Spanish, also stands aside most of the time. Other than those two it is generally possible to integrate all subjects into the story. Teachers do have to be wary of turning every story sequence into a geography project about where the story comes from – just because a story comes from the Middle-East for example does not mean that the focus of the children’s learning should necessarily be the Middle-East. I was exceedingly pleased a few years ago when a Year Five class got to the end of a story sequence before any of them noticed they hadn’t been told where that story came from – it was a Nusradin story so the answer would have been – ‘pretty much anywhere’ anyhow.

Our story curriculum has served us well. It has helped to form a happy school with a real sense of itself and with an increasingly handy set of SATS results. We moved from an ofsted ‘satisfactory’ to ‘good’ under the Storytelling Curriculum and, fingers crossed, we expect our next, now well overdue, inspection to go the same way. We are more than happy to talk to other schools about our journey and how it works for us. Get in contact if you’d like to hear more or if you’d like to pop in for a visit – we’re always happy to show people what we’re up to.


Shakespeare through storytelling

If you think that storytelling is just for early years, checkout Storytelling Schools trainer Kate Barron telling Romeo and Juliet. Upper KS2 classes learn to tell the story like this as a springboard for exploring the story and developing their own creative responses. It may seem like a lot of words, but experience has shown that, using our 4 step method – hear it, map it, step it and speak it – then piece can be learned and told in an hour or so.

May the bard awake!




Success Story with Storytelling

Case Study: Larkrise Primary School

In 2007 Larkrise Primary School in East Oxford was struggling. Levels of achievement were well below the national average while the school had a poor reputation as a tough school. Middle class parents tended to send their children to other schools in the area leaving Larkrise with the less privileged intake from the former council estate. Staff morale was low.

When the East Oxford schools partnership ran an evening training session on the Storytelling method led by Pie Corbett and Chris Smith, the Larkrise Headteacher noticed staff the next day were talking excitedly about the training and the ideas. As a result he decided, on the spot, that Larkrise would become a Storytelling School.

Immediately they devised a storytelling curriculum comprising one oral traditional story per half term across the year. Staff began to teach the children to tell the stories using the ‘Hear, Map, Step, Speak’ method. Then through deepening activities and shared writing they linked the stories to the teaching of narrative writing.

There was a noticeable shift in morale in the school: staff felt they were doing something special and innovative, acting as pathfinders for this new approach to learning.

Ed Finch, teacher at Larkrise, remembers that at the time the school had a real buzz about it. The teachers felt good about themselves and this sense of purpose and confidence was passed on to the children.

Within a year there had been a steep jump in standards in speaking and writing and with it a sense of pride and momentum for change. Since then standards gradually rose every year; Ed attributes this to the accumulative effect of the approach. Children who learned their first story in Year One now graduate with a repertoire of 36 stories: the benefits of becoming a storyteller and linking the text structures and language to writing accumulate during their time at primary school.

A second milestone for the schools was to make a clear statement of school values. Following widespread consultation and a blizzard of post it notes they boiled it down to the 5 Cs: creativity, confidence, caring, curious and celebrating.

Click here to hear the school sing the C song.

This helped staff, students and parents understand the shared values and gave a sense of the kind of community they were part of, building a sense of confidence and belonging. They also formed a popular school samba band which had a loud and visible presence at community events.

A few years on and Larkrise began to get a reputation as a good place to send your child. Ed recalls overhearing a conversation in the park between new parents discussing where to send their children. One said, “I want my child to go to Larkrise – it has a Samba band.” In this way the school was not only succeeding in education and values: it had also become cool!

Today at Larkrise, storytelling is at the heart of how teaching occurs. Class pages on the school website explain the story for the term and what the children will be learning with the story.

Ed Finch checks in with the planning to make sure the teachers are choosing suitable kinds of stories that are good for telling, and that the teachers work out how to link the story across the curriculum over the term.

Even now, he says, 10 years on, staff still come into the staffroom brimming with pride and enthusiasm at a story well told, a class absorbed in listening, and delight when reluctant learners get inspired by their own story ideas. This week they created an innovation on the Snow White story called ‘Yo White and the seven Rappers’’ set in Brixton UK. Everyone was delighted.

Larkrise is now ranked as good by Ofsted and results for writing are consistently above the local and national average. See the graph of their attainments since 2011, showing this virtuous cycle in practice.